I had said to Sergio that I would love to learn the puppets, or marionettes, as he called them, and he offered to show me some. We met at dusk by the lake, and he taught like an old master – strict, unencouraging, his way is the only right way. I didn’t care, I just wanted to learn his technique.
We started with the head. I was not permitted to move any other part of the marionette, only the head, and it had to be just so. When he was finally satisfied, I was allowed to move the arms. Then eventually try walking. This was as far as I got on the first day. My walk was a lopsided shuffle, and the marionette sagged under my instruction. With a scorching expression, Sergio straightened the marionette’s posture, and I felt like a naughty ballerina who had been slouching at the barre.
So many things to remember at once – the eye gaze has to be perfect, the back has to be straight, the movements fluid. He gave me sequences to practice and I did them over and over. I began to understand that the secret lay in finding the eye gaze and posture, then keeping my right hand absolutely steady so these would not be lost, while I operated the arms or legs with my left hand. I was totally rapt with the discovery that in a single lesson I had managed to make the marionette come alive, even if somewhat saggy and jerky. I knew that with practise, I’d be able to do it.
When it was over for the evening, I told Sergio that I would go home and make one myself. He offered to draw for me the construction details, and we agreed to meet late, at 9pm, with my sketchbook. We sat facing each other, crosslegged on the footpath, and got to business almost immediately. He talked in Spanish, and with difficulty we were able to translate many of his words to English for my benefit. I discovered, to my amazement, that I was able to understand a surprising amount of his Spanish. His Chilean accent is far easier for me to follow than the local Guatemalan patterns of speech. I picked up a lot of his language, and was able to use it back to him, no doubt with utterly incorrect pronounciation, but it enabled us to understand each other. Sergio’s marionettes are mostly wood, with hands, head and feet of papier mache, and an incredibly complicated dowel joint at the knee which allows the knee to bend back but not forward. There’s no way I have that kind of skill with wood to create that joint. My mind was already casting around to work out who to ask for help.
My second lesson with Sergio was very satisfying. I actually made the marionette paint! I concentrated hard, kept the posture straight for much more of the time, flitted in and out of having the correct eye gaze, and had several moments when it all came together beautifully. I had the marionette lie down on my sketch book so I could trace around him, making for myself a pattern for my own marionette. This time as well as painting, I made my marionette lie down and sleep. I watched hard while Sergio operated his, and discovered that despite his old-master attitude, now that I knew some of the technique, Sergio’s work was not actually perfect. This gave me a lot of hope.
And breakfast with Paula on our last morning in Panajachel, Sergio told her that I am talented, that with practise I will be very good. Now that is music to me!
Since then I’ve been dreaming non-stop about the marionettes. I discussed in detail with Paula the methods of construction, how I don’t have the confidence with wood, and somehow it came to me that rather than waiting till I get home, I should start right now. So yesterday when Paula and Jesse went on a tourist hike, I stayed at the hotel and put to work Pathik and Chiko’s method of making papier mache grout. I used newspaper and glue and since I didn’t have anything better, used Jesse’s potty as my mixing bowl. This picture is my first draft of a face and hands. It’s rough, partly because it’s my first go and largely because I didn’t mush the paper as finely as I should have. But Sergio’s marionettes are rough, at least as rough as this.
Now Paula and Jesse have gone on another tourist outting to see volcanos, and I have an entire seven hours all to myself. Such a luxury! I have begun by having a good write here, and my next step is to work on my new batch of papier mache grout until my favourite café opens for breakfast. Over breakfast I will finish the cat I’m sewing, then I’ll come back here and make more of my marionette.